When The Sun's paywall was taken down at the end of November 2015, just under 20 million unique users globally visited thesun.co.uk each month, and 14 million of them were in the UK.
Compared to our rivals, we were minnows, especially when you consider this is the Web site for the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper.
During the last 12 months, that number has grown to more than 50 million globally and 30 million in the UK.
Last December, we didn’t find a huge queue of Sun readers out there, waiting with their faces pressed to the glass ready to rush in for free Sun content when the doors were opened, despite the heritage and strength of the brand.
Millions of the people in the U.K. (our core market) had formed their Internet consumption habits elsewhere in the preceding few years, while the paywall was in place.
We realised very quickly that even if you have the best story in the world, if you don’t get it in front of people, it is worthless. Or even worse, our rivals who “repurpose” great Sun exclusives in seconds enjoyed the traffic gains from them without having to pay for any of the journalistic endeavour.
It became abundantly clear that we, as a digital editorial team, had to fast become experts at distribution as well as journalism in one of the world’s most competitive publishing territories.
First, we had to up the volume of our content.
The Sun split its editorial teams, so there is now a separate digital reporting and editing team — which enjoys a fantastic and enviable level of collaboration with its newspaper colleagues.
We scaled up the digital team fast and now publish upwards of 500 articles per day (including the content from the print newspaper each day).
The obvious trade-off in such high-volume publishing models is quality. We have a team of skilled editors who can commission the best stories, oversee their production, and polish the headlines and pictorial sells of each story.
We believe that every article teaser is a front page. We are competing for people’s time spent on the Internet — not just against other publishers, but against any other Web site people go to when they pick up their phone or PC. We have worked very hard to avoid going down the clickbait route, and instead we stay true to the Sun headline style.
Second, we built an editorial audience development team.
As real-time data is at the heart of everything we do, the audience development team manages our social channels and search engine optimisation (SEO). They aren’t separate from the reporters, but embedded at the heart of the team.
With such a huge mountain to climb to compete with our rivals, who have been pursuing a “free” model for the last few years, we can’t afford to work simply on editorial “gut feeling.”
So, rather than just posting links or optimising metadata, the audience development team also has a large say in what stories we publish, when we publish them, and how we headline them.
To the purist at the heart of any journalist, this could come across as though we are “playing the algorithms” run by Google and Facebook. We must face facts that, for better or worse, readers now consume their news digitally on these platforms, and we are just giving them what they want, when they want it.
You could also view it (and this is how we prefer to see it) that we are simply giving the readers what they want, at the heart of the success of Fleet Street’s tabloids for decades gone.
Unannounced changes to algorithms aside, it is a very democratic way of delivering news. We can see in real-time what is most popular, so we can tailor our future coverage, choose celebrities or subjects, to give readers more of what they want to read about.
As a consequence, our journalistic “instinct” changes to suit, as we can see in our dashboards exactly what readers like.
Before the paywall went down, The Sun was experimenting on Facebook by offering some free articles, distinct from the print newspaper content.
When the paywall came down, it was our main channel of distribution. On some days more than 70% of the traffic lived there. Home page traffic was less than 15% of our total, and SEO non-existent.
During the last year, we have worked very hard at rebalancing our traffic, while keeping all sources growing. We redesigned our home page and changed platform.
The new Web site was launched in June. Given 80% of our traffic is on mobile, we optimised the responsive site for mobile consumption, both in the design and also in performance.
The old platform was dreadful for SEO, so when we moved platforms, we spent a lot of time making sure it would give us the best start in the long haul up the Google rankings.
Nothing made us more angry than seeing rivals take top spot for an exclusive we had broken. We’ve made an awful lot of headway now and are beginning to punch our weight. AMP has been instrumental in this, given our mobile traffic.
We have seen an 174% rise in search traffic since June as a result, and it now accounts for a healthy third of our traffic.
Meanwhile, we have recently deployed Facebook Instant Articles. The results are encouraging in terms of audience growth, but we are testing them against any commercial impact that may occur from being solely reliant on Facebook’s walled garden ad network.
And we also have seen our direct traffic rise 25% by having a well-designed, constantly updated, and data-driven home page curated by some very talented editors and headline writers.
In the meantime, we also have a fantastically popular U.K.-focused Snapchat Discover channel, and have experimented with a Facebook Messenger bot during the last Premier League transfer window. While the scale of the bot was not huge, the engagement has been very encouraging.
We are in the process of rethinking our apps and perfecting the connections between the ever-increasing traffic core of sun.co.uk, and the rest of the smaller but super-engaged brand extensions such as SunBets, Dream Team, Sun Bingo, and £9.50 Holidays. There’s still so much to do.